Taiwan says HIV cases coming from China

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A girl points at an AIDS awareness campaign poster during a ceremony to mark World AIDS day in Shanghai (c) Reuters TAIPEI (Reuters) - A recent explosion of HIV-AIDS cases in Taiwan is coming from China and is being spread by drug users, prompting the island to step up its prevention efforts, medical experts said on Friday.

The HIV strain among Taiwan's intravenous drug users was the same as that circulating in western China, particularly in an area near the Golden Triangle, said Chen Yi-ming, a professor at the Institute of Public Health at Yangming University in Taipei.

HIV could be reaching Taiwan via drug traffickers and users who arrive on the island via southern China and Hong Kong, Chen said. He added the same virus strain had not turned up in other Asian countries.

"In Taiwan, people think we are a low-prevalance country, but because of the intravenous drug user epidemic, I don't think we can say so," Chen told reporters. "I hope we will learn a lesson. This virus is very virulent and it transmits very effectively."

An estimated 12,600 people carry HIV-AIDS in Taiwan, with the first drug-linked case appearing in 1988. While still low, the number has jumped sharply since 2003 due to the drug connection.

Last year, 3,400 people got the disease from drug use, and this year the number will be around 3,000, said Yang Shih-yan, a director with Taiwan's Center for Disease Control.

Taiwan has an estimated 60,000 intravenous drug users and the volume of illegal drugs seized by authorities is rising.

In July, every city and province in Taiwan began giving out free needles to drug users to divert them from virus-contaminated used syringes, Yang said. Next year, the HIV-AIDS prevention budget will double to T$280 million ($8.5 million), he said.

(c) Reuters